Balanchine’s First Square Dance Caller

March 24, 2011

Song & Dance

Gents go ‘round, come right back,
Make your feet go wickety-wack . . .

Crackerjack square dance caller Elisha Keeler was profiled in The New York Times and The New Yorker in 1957. Next thing you know, George Balanchine was making a new dance to the music of Baroque composers, prancing his City Ballet dancers through all kinds of stage geometry. He named it “Square Dance,” and invited Keeler to “call” it.

Keeler had only been to the ballet once in his life. He watched rehearsals, and with the help of his wife and kids, wrote the calls. “We asked him to say anything he wanted, as long as he didn’t use ballet terms,” said Balanchine.

Keeler was a colorful character, a horticulturist in his day job, famous for his way with African violets. He played piano, banjo, cello, trombone and harmonica, and his daddy was a caller before him. His family band—wife Lois on accordion, daughter Mollie on fiddle and son Kenny on banjo and trombone—often accompanied Keeler’s dances. They were known as the Happy Humdingers. Keeler made singing radio commercials too.

Keeler “sang” “Square Dance” every time it was performed at New York City Ballet from its premiere in 1957 through 1964. He called at over 2,600 festivals and conventions over his long life, but his family said “being part of the ballet was probably the high point of his calling career.” Wrote Time Magazine, “. . . when Keeler had twanged out his last call (“That is all; the dance is ended/ The music is finished; the caller’s winded”), audiences cheered the blend of do-si-do and pas de deux.” Keeler passed away in 2005, at the age of 98.

Oregonians have a rare opportunity to see “Square Dance” its original form with OBT’s performances. Balanchine revised the ballet in 1976, and dropped the caller from the scenario.

(Photo: Portland violinist, composer and actor Tylor Neist will reprise Elisha Keeler’s role in the OBT performance of “Square Dance,” part of the Song & Dance program playing in the Newmark in April)

Photo Above: Elisha Crofut Keeler, circa 1955

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